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Miyamoto on women as characters in Nintendo games
Miyamoto on women as characters in Nintendo games
June 21, 2013 | By Mike Rose

June 21, 2013 | By Mike Rose
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing

"For us it's less about the story and more about the structure of the gameplay and what makes sense to be presenting to the consumer."
- veteran Nintendo designer Shigeru Miyamoto discusses women as characters in Nintendo games.

Miyamoto explained to Kotaku that since the Nintendo DS era, Nintendo has found that more and more women are playing games, and are wanting to play as women characters.

"Even as far back as Mario Kart, we had females who wanted to be able to play as female characters and we obviously saw the addition of Princess Peach early on in that series," he noted. "And gradually, over time, we started to see the desire for other-balanced female characters."

"And so we've added heavier female characters in the Mario Kart series for them to choose from," he continued, referring to the addition of heavy-class characters in the game that move more slowly, but are stronger. "So I think it's just a natural tendency."

Miyamoto says that introducing women characters, especially in scenarios where women are saving male characters (a reversal of the classic "Damsel in Distress" scenario) into Nintendo games has to feel natural in how the game plays.

"I guess, for me in particular, the structure of the gameplay always comes before the story," he added. "And so we're always looking at, when we're putting that together, what is the most natural story to take place within that structure."

"So, if we end up creating a gameplay structure where it makes sense for, whether it's a female to go rescue a male or a gay man to rescue a lesbian woman or a lesbian woman to rescue a gay man, we might take that approach," Miyamoto continued.

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Gene L
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Miyamoto is effectively saying that Link could not have been a gay man saving a male prince in any of the previous games because of some fundamental facet of their gameplay.

Why would one man saving another be practically different from a man saving a woman? Implying the nature of victimhood, and heroism for that matter, is dependent on gender or sexual orientation reflects the problematic mindset that has been the subject of so much recent controversy.

Bob Johnson
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I think he just said Nintendo isn't going in that direction. The focus of their games isn't the sexual orientation of their characters. The focus isn't about story. It's about the gameplay first. They don't think about sexual orientation.

IF there was a scenario where a gameplay idea made a lot of sense to have a gay guy be the main character then maybe they would do that. But don't hold your breath.

Michael Nicolayeff
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Bob, you appear to be saying that when gameplay is the core focus, there is little reason to stray from the default straight white male. If that's the case, I'd disagree.

I actually find it kind of annoying that in many kinds of media that if the protagonist is gay, then the plot has to have something to do with gay rights. More topical, Super Princess Peach gave her super-powered emotions... because she's a woman and being emotional is a thing women do. I find both traits (being gay, being female) as unremarkable as having black hair or preferring beef over chicken.

Luke Meeken
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And "not thinking about" elements of your game (or any artform) is exactly how the status quo, especially the more problematic elements of the status quo, is perpetuated.

Kyle Conway
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I mean we're all just trying to gleam very complicated opinions from what is essentially one quote. I wouldn't try to extrapolate much out of this article (not saying this article is bad just not enough to go on to firmly cement Miyomoto's opinion.)

I THINK he means what he said from the standpoint of his games and how he thinks they should go. Which is the "author" of those titles, I see no fault in that thinking.

I honestly think trying to pressure these old game directors into putting female characters into games to be a bit...pointless? There is a ton of new talent coming in every day pushing the boundaries of gaming and what we can do with it, including pushing gender boundaries in entertainment. This problem is slowly sorting itself out. As much as I like people like Anita and her 'Women in Games' series I would much rather she herself made a game and contributed to the effort...more. I realize we should educate but I think educating by example is far more effective than education by just simple explanation.

That's just me though!

Arthur De Martino
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I read it as "If Zelda were to save link, we would actually make her unique gameplay wise instead of just making her Link but a girl".

As in she would probably be a wizard-ninja.

Robert Drake
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Or maybe he's just saying that they build a game about person 'A' rescuing person 'B', and that the story that fits that also has the most mass-appeal is the stereotypical "knight in shining armor saves the princess" that conforms to gender norms.

Dane MacMahon
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Also they aren't exactly pumping out the new IP, and if you make a Mario or Zelda game people expect to play as the main character they always played as: Mario and Link. I think it's more nostalgia bias than gender bias.

Would love a (real) game that focused on a bad-ass Princess Zelda, but doubt they would take the market risk.

Jason Carter
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I dunno. There could definitely be a game where Zelda takes a major role.

I'd like to see it kinda like this: You start the game playing as Link (or just watching Link) during a "final" battle with Ganon saving Zelda. But Ganon wins and traps link in some nether realm / "inescapable" dark realm. During the fight however, Zelda manages to escape and you play the game as Zelda trying to free Link.

There could even be duality where Zelda works from the outside (perhaps even as Sheik?) fighting and entering temples to find more info about the Dark Realm and changing things in the Dark Realm. And then you could also play as Link inside the Dark Realm trying to figure out how to escape.

And then at the end they both fight Ganon in another final battle where they win together. Dunno it could be a good way to incorporate Zelda without alienating people who like to play Link.

Toby Grierson
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"but doubt they would take the market risk."

I'm not convinced that's an actual risk.

Tasley Porter
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What he's saying is that Nintendo has not encountered any moments in gameplay design where inserting a female or gay character was something they felt fit the game structure. It's important to distinguish story from structure, because he does. He's saying it's been better for them over the years to pick heterosexual males because it's integral to the structure of the game. Which is total bullshit.

We only need to look back at the games Nintendo have made and think about the scenarios we've encountered where it would have changed the gameplay to have a female or gay character there. Miyamoto would have done better to come right out and say they prefer making games with heterosexual male characters. That's pretty much all he described while saying their game structures, popularly, aren't appropriate for female/gay characters.

Jonathan Jou
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I would caution against this sort of accusation, because gender representation in any media is a thorny issue and Miyamoto may just as well have been saying that he doesn't want to shoehorn in a controversial character. I'd say games which misrepresent women or gay heroines are ridiculed and criticized just as heavily, if not more heavily, than games which pander to established norms. How would it be any better if Nintendo made a game which made the mistake of the "belching, womanizing man with different naughty bits," or worse, the "otherwise indistinguishable heroine who has bouts of womanly worries"?

I'd sooner compare it to comedians working with politically incorrect material: some people specialize in it, and do it amazingly well without offending anyone. Most people who try wind up playing with fire. And Miyamoto might just be saying that he's not too keen on biting off more than he can chew. He's trying to make games, after all. Perhaps he's leaving these issues to more capable hands.

Tasley Porter
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@Jonathan Jou: Which is exactly why I said he would have been better off saying he preferred male heterosexual characters. That is clearly his comfort zone and there's nothing wrong with that. The explanation instead comes off as a round about way of saying "females have not historically fit the structure well enough for the kinds of games I like to make." Which is why I called bullshit. Any number of games (structurally) he's made that I've played were not somehow made great or which made more sense by having a straight male protagonist.

In saying so, he's making the statement that some of his games would have been fundamentally different had there been a female/gay protagonist or more female characters. I haven't played a single Miyamoto title where this is true, but it's possible I just can't recall them in this moment. I'll also say that the majority of games he's had a hand in aren't particularly original in the stories they tell, which is to say he steers close to cultural norms most of the time without challenging them.

Johnathon Tieman
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@Tasley: "He's saying it's been better for them over the years to pick heterosexual males because it's integral to the structure of the game. Which is total bullshit."

It is total bullshit. However, he didn't say it - you put those words in his mouth. What he said is that Nintendo didn't invest any time in story creation, and he merely used the most obvious of plots. If you look throughout history, what is an obvious plot? Why, damsel in distress! If history had put gay characters rescuing their lovers, then that would have been the plot they used.

In other words, the stories they used are the most common already in existence in society. (Gee, do you mean a business is a reflection of the society it exists in? Shocking!). That's all. What he did acknowledge is that society has changed and wants different content. In the future they will keep that in mind, but only if it makes sense from a gameplay perspective. That seems like a comment a rational mind would make while considering the future of the business he is involved in.

E Zachary Knight
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Let's think about this. For over 25 years, Nintendo has been making games with a strong female lead character, Samus in the Metroid series. For years, everyone loved having her as the main character and it was great. She was a strong, powerful lead in a great game.

Then 2 years ago, they decided to have her talk and interact with other characters. The game was lambasted because it moved away from the more gender neutral role that she had previously occupied into a role that emphasized her female traits, or at least what the designers thought were her female traits.

It is that kind of dangerous territory that game developers face when seeking to utilize characters that represent minorities. I could understand any designer that would want to shy away from that potential mine field and simply play it safe.

Luke Meeken
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@E Zachary:
But it's also an illustration of how, when narrative is not at the fore, there's nothing about pure mechanics that explicitly lends itself to a specifically gendered protagonist - and Miyamoto is contending precisely the opposite of that, which kind of reeks of BS.
No one is asking him to focus on story in games, just to afford more opportunities to play as other kinds of characters, especially women. There's no reason a typical Nintendo-style 'mechanics-first' game HAS to have a male protagonist, and Metroid is a perfect example of that.

Craudimir Ascorno
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In fact, Miyamoto just avoided the question, saying that a few games made by him have female characters, but avoiding the issue of their representantion. The argument that "he focuses on gameplay experiences" is not an answer to the fact that most of his stories fell into the damsel in distress trope, but as that argument has been working for years and years every time Miyamoto and Nintendo big shots are questioned about anything, why change the tactics?

Joe Zachery
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First let's remember this article is from Kotaku. Who has been on this agenda for protecting female rights. In between their usual trolling, and get site hit articles. Also it would help to post the entire article.
You clearly have a person who wants to know why Nintendo is not pushing out female leads in their games. Since all of sudden this E3 Nintendo by far had the most female characters in their games.

Miyamoto clearly stated that the introduction of females in most early games. Came due to there being a audience that wanted it. As the audience grew the inclusion of more variety of female characters were added to certain games. Nintendo games are always about gameplay. So their stories are always generic in delivery when compared to other game's plot. If you story doesn't mean anything too you. Your more likely going to use the most common, generic, or mainstream type. Nintendo is usually inspired by others when it comes to story elements. Take Metroid for example we know that it was inspired by Aliens. Who had a female lead in a solo space adventure. Then after that they decided to based her looks off of My Step Mother is A Alien. If Alien would have be mostly about a male lead. The character Samus would have been a male.
The point I'm trying to make is Nintendo may be limited in their scope of character depth. They are not going out of their way to include or not include female characters because of some Japanese agenda.
If anything Nintendo reacts to the current climate, and do their best to adapt to it. Look at Other M a game that came from people wanting Nintendo to make more story driven games.

warren blyth
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I hear you.

but i think the core of it is: Nintendo is being reactive. Falling back on age old traditions/tropes (damsel in distress) because it is the fastest way to convey the game scenario. because it's easy.

But people who want to change our cultural, would rather Nintendo be proactive. Because they see that falling back on old traditions/tropes also reinforces them.

Maybe it's too much to ask. Maybe it's silly to think a corporation would care about how their entertainment products affect modern culture. But I don't begrudge that group for trying. I don't feel strongly about the subtle/arguable sexism in this aspect of our culture, but I don't mind when people seek change it. I'll still play the games for the gameplay.

If the next Mario game started with bowser finally capturing mario, and Peach setting off to make a cake out of his ass, I'd probably be glad for the change of perspective. I'm kind of tired of each game that follows the expected course. (* call it "The Legend of Mario" for extra points)

Terry Reine
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This is a synopsis . you can get more details by following the link from Kotaku. the interview is titled about damsels in distress but starts out with the notice that a lot of Wii U games can be played as either male or female. They discuss the evolution of this which is basically girls started playing games and started asking for female characters they could play with. the original interview was edged in during a Picman 3 interview so wasn't the primary focus. I get the general impression they create a game concept and build a story or plot when needed to justify the gameplay. When using this method it's best to stick to archetypes, so people will readily identify with the game.

Kujel s
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After reading Mr. Miyamoto's comments and the arguments I can't but feel annoyed again by the people who want this non-gameplay or that non-gameplay added to games when really games are about gameplay first and foremost. If you want to push some agenda do it with another medium cause video games are about gameplay and little else. I'm sure someone will disagree but someone always disagrees and I don't care, I just want enjoyable games to play.

I'm glad Mr Miyamoto focuses so much on gameplay cause he creates awesome GAMES!

Luke Meeken
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If the gameplay is first and foremost and the story/content has literally NO relevance to the game, then there is literally NO reason why the protagonist couldn't be female. His argument (and your argument, which parrots his) dismantles itself.

Craudimir Ascorno
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This is the easiest argument to debunk about Miyamoto's instance on games. If he was so concerned about gameplay, Mario franchise would not have a thousand games. If he was so assured about the gameplay of Nintendo games, there would be no need of Mario Kart, Mario Party, Mario Tennis, Mario Golf, Donkey Kong Country, Paper Mario, Mario and Luigi, Luigi Mansion, etc, etc, etc, because if the games were all about gameplay he would use any character to sell them.

It is exactly the opposite, the main selling point of most Mario games are the characters. And it includes the representation of female characters in Mario world. Sorry, but the argument that "Miyamoto's games or Nintendo's games are all about gameplay" is fallacious. Their games are all about money. And that includes creating the myth surrounding Miyamoto, so Nintendo fans can defend him even when he is wrong.

Dimitri Del Castillo
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The argument of feminism in video games needs to be broadened. Miyamoto hints to it in the last quote. Identity is the real question here and if it's something to be considered in game design, then it should be something that comes into play in the form of a character select screen.

This would produce more work for the designer, but add more meaningful content for the player if they included unique story lines for each character the player could choose (let this be whatever gender/sexual preference/life-style that could be represented).

Certainly, game like this would be seen as egalitarian, but would they have an identity of their own?

I think what Miyamoto is loathe to think of, is the possibility of having to evolve one of his canonical characters into something that violates his original vision just to keep up with the times. He has already faced the reactionaries from the right who think that all games promote violence. To now think of reactionaries from the left that think he is not giving a broader portrayal of protagonists must be absolutely trying for him.

I hope he sticks to his guns.

Vincent Hyne
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Miyamoto says it clearly.

"And so we're always looking at, when we're putting that together, what is the most natural story to take place within that structure."

It's not natural for women to be saving men. Women can't jump into squares with question marks on them, or on mushrooms and tortoises while moving to the right.

Evan Hartshorn
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Miyamoto has straight-up said before that the Mario crowd is, in his head, not so much a group of characters in a fantasy world as a troupe of actors that put on different roles as the games require (e.g. Peach freely plays tennis with Bowser not because of Stockholm Syndrome, but because she's never actually been kidnapped. Those were parts ithey had in a play.)

In essence, the policy is to think up new gameplay, and then slot existing characters in wherever they make sense, only inventing new characters when no existing one fits. Hence The Legend of Zelda was originally Mario Adventure until it became clear that a cast of characters geared toward epic fantasy was needed.

If you keep that in mind, it becomes clear that Miyamoto is not saying "Only straight people fit into my gameplay," but rather "only gameplay fits into my to-do list."

Jeremy Alessi
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Miyamoto started with Donkey Kong (based on King Kong and its damsel in distress) and has continued to deliver products that his audience (established by Donkey Kong) likes.

Once part of his audience vocalized a desire for female roles to play, they were added and there's nothing wrong with being reactionary in this case. The man just wants to make fun games with simple stories to give the player some context.

The other day a friend gave me a hard time for still eating at Chic-fil-A. I don't consider myself conservative or liberal. I just wish a chicken sandwich was a chicken sandwich and a game was a game.

The world is more complex than that but you can literally drive yourself crazy attempting to confront the complexity head on.

Simply put if you like Miyamoto's games buy them, if you don't, don't. If you want to request a feature, then request a feature. It's up to consumers to demand and up to Miyamoto to adapt.

In this case there's no agenda other than to make fun games that sell well. Miyamoto's not going to make a bad game or one that alienates his base and there's nothing wrong with that.

Jeremy Fountaine
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I enjoy this comment about Chic-Fil-A, I have had the same issue and I have the same problem with a lot of this stuff. Whether I choose to eat a sandwich there or not wont change the owner. If anything I am supporting the minimum wage workers that need jobs. The issue with LGBT rights and equality is that it is becoming toxic. It's become an issue of "If you aren't with me, you are my enemy!" Where I just want to yell "I DON'T CARE!" I have my own priorities, yes I support equality, but I can't sit around all day and whine about it. If it comes up in a vote, sure, but don't get on my case because I play games with male leads.

Jeremy Fountaine
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Everyone is quick to assume that Miyamoto cares one way or another. Articles like this look to put words in peoples mouths and place blame. I am pretty sure all Miyamoto cares about is making FUN games. Regardless of who is what sex or gender and regardless of who the characters really are, the games are fun. It is okay to just not have a stance in this argument simply because it's lose lose. All he is saying is that he wont make a female heroine for the sake of appeasing the masses. It's a consideration that doesn't really need to be made when it comes to making a FUN game.

The unfortunate truth is, despite the social outcry for LGBT rights, when is comes to games, money talks, and people are speaking pretty clearly with what is currently available. Games that cater to the LGBT concerns don't do well, probably because the games suck because the focus of the project was to have a gay lead or something along those lines. Build the game around the fun, not the current social forecast. ( I will say I support full equality, that being said, I personally treat everyone equally, however I won't be protesting anytime soon, I have myself to look after at the moment)

That being said, Sheik is pretty much the reason Link was able to succeed in OoT. Zelda is one of the strongest female characters in their history given how she handles her situations. That being said, it it is the whole damsel in distress trinity story line, and really, in all Nintendo games character motivations are weak. DK wants his bananas, Mario wants to save Peach, Link to Save the Cheerleader (Save the world). Even the enemies. Why does Ganon hate good so much? He does. What is Bowsers issue? No one knows. And in DKCR the new totem enemies, why take the bananas? To piss off an ape?

Also who cares is Samus being female was an afterthought? She is still a pretty kickass role model, and it's not like Nintendo makes a habit to correct people on that issue...

Cordero W
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Aside from all the comments, I had a good laugh with Miyamoto's final words. You could tell he was humoring himself with parodying all this talk of wanting this and that type of characters. I share his vision that sexuality shouldn't exist in games, and is best left for more passive, thought provoking media like novels and television shows. We just want to make games that the public would enjoy. They play games for the interactivity, not to question this and that. As an older gamer, I would like to see a bit more mature themes for my favorite Nintendo IPs, but the only IP I can depend on that for is the Zelda series from what history has shown.

Terry Matthes
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People need to complain less and start making their own games with strong female characters if that's what they want to see. You can't just rip apart everything anyone sais and skew it to your personal gender agenda. I've never felt Nintendo made games that cast women in a poor light. Yes, some do follow classic gender role interpretations, but they also don't owe it do you to do anything different.

Luis Guimaraes
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It's also a huge window of opportunity to make a buck.

There's a big marketing opportunity right now to launch games with female protagonist. It'll free hype everywhere, the game doesn't even need to be good.

Chris Dias
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Remember Me got a bit of hype for having a female protagonist. It probably would have gotten more if it were good.

Matt Walker
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Regardless of whether gameplay comes first, inevitably they shoehorn a story or scenario in there. And more often than not, they way these Japanese developers design their female characters is done through their cultural lens.

If anyone wants to know why the female characters get the roles they do in Nintendo games, I suggest Googling articles on how men and women are viewed in Japanese culture.

Mark McGee
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Nintendo's franchise characters are asexual. If these characters start to have sexual preferences, then you're robbing the asexual minority of their representation in video games.

Jeffrey Werner
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Wow, after reading all of the comments it is obvious to me that this issue is so misunderstood that even the ones trying to fix things are making it worse. If we made the lead character female “just because” then we are not justifying why she is there, and in turn disrespecting what a women can bring to the role.

Miyamoto said that he thinks of gameplay first, and then decides what characters would best fit the structure of the game. Therefore, if the game is all about character A saving character B and the main role of character A is using a sword and shield, and character B does nothing but be held captive, then the thing that best fits is the standard “Knight in shining armor” trope.

Nintendo often makes an interesting game and then decides what of their characters best fits that role. If they were designing a game with a character that is big, moves slowly, and angrily brakes things, then making the character a woman would not feel as natural as a big brute of a man.

What Miyamoto is mainly saying here is that it should not matter if your character is male or female, or straight or gay, or what race they are, all that matters is if they fit their given role in the structure of the game. Why does it matter that Peach is the one always being kidnapped? We need someone to play the role of “prisoner” and she being royalty fits nicely. No one else in that world fits that role as nicely as her, that’s why she is always put in that role.

Nintendo doesn’t do these things because they think that women can’t fight for themselves or that they can’t be playable characters. Heck he even said in the article that he found more and more women are playing games and that is way he is giving so many more playable character for them. He is saying that if you start out the project trying to portray a particular character type, then it is hard to make a game around that. You are already limiting yourself to what this character can do or will be willing to do, and on top of all that it is easy to fall into the normal stereotypes of that character type. This will end up offending the vary group of people you were trying to make the game for.

In the end we make games. If a person can’t tell the difference between games and real life, or if they base their ideas of what life should be around games, then we have a much larger cultural problem that this industry is not equipped to handle. Games are for fun, and the characters in those games are only playing their roles in the system so that we can have fun.The characters and story should always be a second thought after you have a fun core game.

warren blyth
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I think the argument at it's core is about demanding cultural change.
(and no artist, comedian, or game designer gets to be excluded from a cultural change argument - because their products are constantly changing our culture).

- I agree that if you need someone with a sword to save a prisoner in a tower - my mind jumps to the male knight and female princess trope. It's a story told for hundreds of years.

but the argument is : should it be? moving forward?
Because that trope might be reinforcing part of our culture that is damaging. (dismissing women as victims).

50 years ago, someone might have said : if the game needs someone who is big, moves slowly, and angrily brakes things - then why not a black slave? They're always muscled and angry. A scrawny white kid wouldn't fit that role as nicely.
And a certain group would argue : uh, wait a minute. maybe we should change that trope.

I'm not saying they're right. I'm just trying to explain where they're coming from.

Mike Jenkins
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"I'm not saying they're right."

That's excellent, because the thought police are never right.